I received a free copy of this ebook from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Full disclosure: this is one of a handful of Russia-related subjects on which I have close to zero knowledge. Before reading Thief in Law, the only books I’d read on Russian organized crime were vol. 1 of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia and Svetlana Stephenson’s Gangs of Russia, which dealt more with youth street gangs than professional criminals. I came to this book with a tabula rasa and this review is more exploratory than usual. Give me a few more reviews and I’ll probably be back to normal.
Oh, and since it’s an ebook, page numbers are cited as ‘Locations’ in-text.
Anyway…abrupt segway! Thief in Law!
Move over, Danzig Baldaev! It’s time for another specialist – this time seasoned British police officer Mark G. Bullen – to take a crack at the esoteric system of Russian criminal tattoos.
Back in 2010, During a police training exchange in St. Petersburg, Bullen noticed that almost every criminal the police dealt with bore similar bluish-green prison tattoos. He wondered why they were so common and what they meant. Upon return to the UK, he began researching Russian prison tattoos. Thief in Law is the culmination of Bullen’s research. It’s divided into three sections: part one details the rise of the vory-v-zakone (the professional criminals) and puts the structure of this criminality into historical and political context; part two explains the meanings behind commonly-encountered prison tattoos; and part three presents illustrations of tattoos along with previously unpublished photographs of “Russian” criminals.
According to Bullen, the phenomenon of prison tattoos began during the Imperial period, possibly inspired by meetings between Russian sailors and their tattooed British counterparts (Loc 130). However, at that time Russia was already branding its criminals: until the mid nineteenth century, offenders sentenced to hard labor were branded with the word “vor” (thief) or “kat” (katorzhnik, hard labor convict) directly on their faces so that they could never hide their crimes. Over time, tattooing became an important part of criminals’ image. In particular the vory used a coded language of tattoos to describe specific crimes and keep out infiltration from law enforcement. They coupled this language with the poniatiia, a strict code of ethics that ensured loyalty and severely punished deviation.
After the end of the Stalinist period, says Bullen, the thieves’ code lost much of its mystique, and the poniatiia became an ideal rather than a requirement. Breaking the rules was seen more sympathetically. Prison tattoos became a nod to traditions of the past – they simply showed a person had been in the zona and signified the crimes, lifestyle, and attitude the bearer wanted to represent (Loc 549).
Besides tracing the origin of Russian prison tattoos, Bullen provides an overview of the evolution of Russian-speaking organized crime during the 20th century. Most notably, he concentrates on an ethnic split in the criminal class that occurred in the 1980s over whether to engage in black-market dealings with corrupt officials. Slavic Purists still following the poniatiia felt it was a betrayal of honored traditions to trade with any part of the Soviet regime; however, the black market was large and other criminals – many of them Georgian – thought dealing with government officials was both low-risk and highly lucrative (Loc 709). Georgians remain the largest ethnic group of organized criminals in and around Russia to date. Moving on, Bullen documents the exploits of organized crime groups and oligarchs in the 1990s (lots of voucher-seizing), including an overlong, slightly tangential biography of Boris Berezovsky and his business life. And what became of the vory in the 2000s? Well, apparently “the Russian state’s attack on organized crime and its leaders has led to an unprecedented exodus of criminals from within Russia’s borders” (Loc 1319). Seems like the feds have so successfully cracked down on organized crime groups that fleeing to Europe and North America is the criminals’ only option. I’m so thankful Bullen didn’t say Putin’s weaponized the vory as a means to undermine Europe, though. Great!
And there the history ends.
Surprisingly enough, there isn’t much of an argument for me to make here. Thief in Law is meant to be a guide and fulfills that purpose smoothly. Especially with such a shadowy topic as Russian organized crime – where there’s incentive for sensational writing – it’s commendable that Bullen, for the most part, keeps his book neutral and readable. He distills complex matter into layman’s terms with great success, making it easy for those new to the world of Russian-speaking organized crime to soak up information. Of course, where the book really shines is parts two and three, where you actually get to see the tattoos Bullen speaks of. The illustrations thankfully aren’t as eye-rapingly graphic as the ones in Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, but unfortunately, there aren’t as many of them here.
I subtracted one star for frequent grammatical errors and occasional sensational phrasing, which I found wholly unnecessary. Another round of editing would’ve benefited Thief in Law: to list a few spots, there’s an unnecessary apostrophe at Loc. 1255 (“the tattoo’s they needed”), United States is misspelled as “Unites States” at Loc 1266, and at Loc. 1181 Khodorkovsky’s name is misspelled as “Khordakovsky” (but hey, at least the book identifies him as a crook). And when I read such lines as “The civilized world is under siege from this Red Terror” (Loc 84), I nearly wanted to shout, “We ain’t in the Cold War no more!”
Nevertheless, these failures are minor and don’t detract from Thief in Law’s successes. It’s a neat little introductory guide with an interesting visual component. So if you’re curious about Russian-speaking organized crime and have an e-reader (sorry, there’s no print edition), I recommend giving Thief in Law a try.
★ ★ ★ ★
Thief in Law: a guide to Russian prison tattoos and Russian-speaking organized crime gangs by M.G. Bullen. Pub. Apr 2016 by One’s Own Publishing House Ltd. Kindle Edition, 346 pages. ASIN B01E2WV6C2.